Saadiq Kariem, the health secretary of the African National Congress (ANC), and the 1.7 million member Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) both said on Saturday that the government's long hoped-for decision would drastically improve the lives of millions of people.

"Furthermore, it will lead to a major economic cost saving as the need to treat opportunistic infections will be decreased as well as improving the lives of the economically active part of the population," he said.

The government has been hesitant in implementing an AIDS treatment programme, despite the United Nations saying that almost 1,000 of South Africa's 4.5 million HIV/AIDS sufferers are dying every day.

Welcome U-turn


"Properly implemented, this will restore hope, dignity and life for millions of people in our country."

Treatment Action Campaign

On Friday, however, the cabinet instructed the health ministry to develop a detailed operational plan to make antiretroviral drugs available to HIV and AIDS sufferers by the end of September.

COSATU praised "the historic announcement" and pledged to do everything in its power to work with government to implement the programme.

"We do not underestimate the scale of the challenge we face, to treat the five million people who are currently infected, but believe that this is a national emergency requiring a concerted drive by all of us to defeat this epidemic," spokesman Patrick Craven said.

The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which had launched a civil disobedience campaign to protest the government's policy on AIDS, applauded the decision.

"Properly implemented, this will restore hope, dignity and life for millions of people in our country. The TAC will formally suspend its civil disobedience campaign," it said.

Cynical voices

But experts on AIDS believe it is too early for optimism.

Professor Udo Schuklenk, a specialist on AIDS ethics at South Africa's University of the Witwatersrand, said the government had been extremely hesitant in implementing a treatment programme in the past, and that they were bound to engage in more stonewalling in the coming months.

Tshabalala-Msimang: breathtaking incompetence

"The president is the king in this country and the health minister, who is a trained physician, has been compliant with breathtaking incompetence. I am sure there will be further shenanigans in the coming months," he said.

Swazi Hlubi, the executive director of the Network of AIDS Communities of South Africa also struck a note of caution.

"Our hopes have been raised and crushed many times before... we will watch closely to ensure that ARV treatment truly becomes a reality," he said.

Let them eat garlic

It is widely believed that Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has taken her cue from President Thabo Mbeki, who has stated that factors other than HIV could cause AIDS.

Tshabalala-Msimang has refused to budge on the issue of a treatment plan, despite rulings by South African courts and calls from around the world to implement such measures.

In April 2002, South Africa's highest court, the Constitutional Court, upheld a ruling by a lower court that by restricting the roll-out of the drug nevirapine, the government was violating the constitutional rights of women and their babies.

Nevirapine is used to prevent the transmission of HIV in pregnant mothers.

Last year Tshabalala-Msimang said at an AIDS conference in Barcelona that the drugs are "poisons" killing "our people".

In March, she recommended a combination of garlic, onions, virgin olive oil and the African potato to boost the immune systems of people with AIDS, despite a local immunology professor saying the concoction was potentially lethal.